Croatia's Watergate tape

By Patrick Moore

May 4, 2000

(RFE/RL) - The late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman appears poorly informed and petty in recently published transcripts of a taped conversation with his chief domestic affairs aide, Ivic Pasalic. The two men give the impression that they are concerned primarily with power and influence and treat the law as something to be manipulated for their own purposes. It remains to be seen what the political fallout of the tape will be.

Prime Minister Ivica Racan said in Zagreb on 18 April that recordings of conversations between Tudjman, Pasalic, and some other aides indicate that they were involved in "robbery" in the sale of the mass-circulation daily "Vecernji list" in 1997. Deputy Prime Minister Zeljka Antunovic added that this was not the only privatization of a firm to be managed by the president's office.

Rijeka's "Novi List" called the scandal "Croatia's Watergate affair." The independent daily speculated as to whether Pasalic, who also heads the Herzegovinian lobby and currently enjoys parliamentary immunity, will wind up in jail once the case goes to court. Speculation in the media has centered on the possibility that Pasalic and one of Tudjman's sons controlled "Vecernji list."

Pasalic tried to dodge the charges or even deny that conversations about the newspaper had taken place. His final argument was that if any such tape exists, it is the private property of the Tudjman estate and not for public consumption. This did not sound very convincing.

Any doubts were put to rest by "Jutarnji list" offering a present to its readers in its Easter edition. The independent daily--which has been having a field day in recent months reporting on Tudjman-era scandals--ran three pages of transcripts of the Tudjman-Pasalic discussion about "Vecernji list" and other topics. The talks, which took place on 27 December 1997 in Tudjman's offices, included some other aides and officials of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ).

Briefly, the thrust of the conversation is that Tudjman was determined to have control over the influential daily. He wanted it to appear, however, that other individuals--far removed from the president's office and the HDZ leadership-- were the owners.

He seems poorly informed of facts and details, on which Pasalic painstakingly briefs him. Pasalic reassures the then president that "I've made a big smoke screen around the whole thing, because we can't let it appear even from an airplane that [the privatization of the daily] has anything to do with us." Tudjman tells him that this is "fine, and our interest is to have [the newspaper] under our control." Pasalic agrees, adding that "for the benefit of the outside, there will also be an illusion of democratization, privatization, etceteras."

Like U.S. President Richard Nixon on the Watergate tapes, Tudjman appears to have a Manichaean view of politics. Public life is divided between "our people" and their opponents, whom in one case he refers to as an "enemy of the state." Tudjman is determined to go after his foes and hopes to get at the opposition press by questioning whether newspapers are legally registered. He is clearly disappointed when Pasalic patiently points out to him that newspapers do not have to be registered under Croatian law. A similar exchange takes place over the right of those opposed to Tudjman's policies to hold public meetings.

The conversation then switches to one between Tudjman, Vesna Skare-Ozbolt, and some other aides about inviting foreign dignitaries to help mark the return of Eastern Slavonia to Zagreb's control. Tudjman notes that the American way of making policy is that "all [individuals] get involved at once, then they all go away, but then at the same time each in his own way maintains some influence."

Turning to other matters, the president stresses that he wants the victims of mine-clearing accidents to be honored and the remaining Serbs in eastern Slavonia to feel welcome. He nonetheless appears poorly informed about the situation on the ground, asking: "How many Serbs have gone, only a few?"

There are lighter moments as well. When an aide suggests that Tudjman send U.S. diplomat and former Tudjman confidant Peter Galbraith a personal invitation to the Slavonian commemoration, Tudjman bristles at the idea. When Skare- Ozbolt mentions that the UN's representative in Bosnia, Jacques Klein, will come because he is anxious to get out of that country, Tudjman recalls that Klein did not want to go there in the first place. The Croatian president adds that he wants to meet with Klein "because he's still involved in U.S. policy and can influence it in a sensible fashion, whereas-- just between us--[the international community's chief representative in Bosnia Carlos] Westendorp [does not have influence in Washington because he is] a European and what's more a Catholic from Spain."

It remains to be seen what will come of these and other revelations. Pressures are certain to grow for Pasalic to be stripped of his parliamentary immunity. As to Tudjman and his legacy, it is hard to avoid the impression from these transcripts that he was a man whose thoughts and values were clearly rooted in an earlier era. Like Josip Broz Tito--whose style of rule Tudjman clearly imitated--it may be well said of Tudjman that his great weakness was not knowing when to take his hat and leave the task of governing to a younger generation.

Original article